LIVING JOYFULLY NEWSLETTER
Issue #32| March 31, 2014
MARCH’S THEME: Unschooling From the Outside
Spring has peeked into our lives here in Ontario in the last day or so and it’s beckoning me to chip the ice off our front path, and the dogs to linger outside a bit longer (or in the case of our littlest, to go outside at all). I hope things are well with you!
ON THE BLOG …
Over the years I’ve seen and heard many comments from people unfamiliar with unschooling that are along the lines of unschooling children “will never learn how to get along in the real world.” Their impression is that unschooling children are being sheltered; not being pushed out of the nest of home early enough. But I’m starting to wonder if, in the long run, it’s not the other way around: school children are being sheltered.
Unschoolers can really be a confusing bunch to those looking in! On one hand, we appear to be sheltering our children from the real world by keeping them home-we’re overprotective. On the other hand, we appear to not really care about our children because we don’t enforce firm rules. Conventionally, it’s almost a given that at some point parents will explain to their kids, “I say no because I love you.” Boundaries equal love. What if freedom can equal love too?
For many conventional parents, “trusting their children” means believing that their children will follow their rules when the parents aren’t around to oversee their actions: if they don’t consistently follow the rules of their own volition, they can’t be trusted. Using that yardstick to measure trust, along with the conventional wisdom that teens will rebel against parental rules, I can see why they’d think me naive to say I trust my teens. Without rules to measure against, what does trust mean to unschoolers?
LET’S TALK ABOUT … What Love Looks Like in Unschooling Families
This blog post seemed to hit a chord with many people and I enjoyed the conversation that ensued in the comments. There was a comment that seemed particularly apropos to this month’s topic, what unschooling can look like to others looking in, so I wanted to share it here along with my reply.
Unschooling is a very unconventional lifestyle, so often the motivations behind our actions aren’t obvious to others. And we are all at different points in our journey, still working things out for ourselves. In fact, we’re always learning, no matter how many years of experience we have, because the circumstances of our relationships with our children continue to change over time.
So here’s the comment, followed by my reply:
I know an unschooler and I do not unschool ( both are children are too young for school). I explain everything to my son, but do give him rules. He has a bedtime, but it is flexible depending on late events, late naps, or any discomfort he has. it is between 8-10 pm. My friends kid does not, she goes to bed between 1-4am. Causing them lots of stress. My son knows he is allowed to play with lots of things but must ask and be monitored by me for things like knifes, matches, etc. I am amazed that he always asks and never goes behind my back with anything. He even cleans his messes if he makes one without me asking. Her child wrecks the house, colors and paints all over walls, floors, and furniture. Leaves the craziest messes and literally destroys the house.
My child is pleasant and I make a rule that he can have feelings but cannot infringe on others. Her child does not listen at all, does not follow any rules, and does not play nice. This is not always but is often. I give my child firm rules, but listen and talk with him about every one of them, even if it needs to be the same conversation everyday and it drains me completely. I am not saying unschooling is bad or good. I am sure it can be done to great success. But it is not the same for each child.
Many children I know do amazing with rules and firm boundaries, especially with caring parents that do take time to have conversations with their children. To make the assumption that many parents give rules without explanation(even constant explanation) is a bit far fetched. I am a very lenient mom, my child makes most decisions for himself, in the regards of if it is age-appropriate. He can use most kitchen tools, but no my son cannot use a knife without me helping him. And if I am in the kitchen cooking dinner, then he has to wait till after I am done, because his needs do not come before the needs of our family. As soon as I or any other adult is free then he is allowed to use the knife. Doctors, friends, and strangers have always made comments about how well behaved he is, trusting, nice, and how much initiative he has to try new things.
Thanks for taking the time to comment—your observations wonderfully align with the theme on the blog this month, what unschooling looks like from the outside.
I wanted to address a couple things first.
With three kids ages 16-22 I have heard many parents interact with their children over years, so the idea of rules without discussions, especially when there are disagreements, doesn’t seem far-fetched to me, though it may be in your circles. That’s cool. I tried not to imply that this was the case of all parents who aren’t unschooling. (While most parents who choose unschooling would be considered unconventional, certainly not all unconventional parents choose unschooling.)
In pointing out this practice, I’m sharing patterns I’ve observed over the years with an eye to inspiring parents to take a moment to question themselves: Is this something I do? Once in a while? Regularly? If so, is it getting in the way of my relationship with my child? Of their learning about the world? If it’s not an issue they are seeing in their family, that’s great. And even if the answers are yes, if they’re comfortable with that, that’s fine too. Through the exercise they are reminded that this is a choice they’re making; it needn’t be an automatic reaction based in “this is what parents do.” It becomes a bit more info in their parenting toolbox.
I also wanted to mention that your observations aren’t about unschooling per se because, as you mentioned, neither of the children are yet school-aged. These are parenting choices. Granted, I imagine your friend has plans to not send her child to school and they are looking to align their parenting choices with unschooling. (I think this post might be helpful: Attachment Parenting Flows Into Unschooling.)
Your observations about your friend’s family aren’t surprising: it’s true, exploration and learning can be messy, especially with young children. As to the question of whether it’s working well for the family, it’s really hard for anyone to tell from the outside.
Maybe your friend is in the midst of learning about unschooling. Sometimes as we let go of our conventional ideas we aren’t yet quite sure what to replace them with—this is part of our journey. Maybe they are struggling and are working to find a flow to their days that better meets everyone’s needs. Maybe the child’s behaviour looks extreme to those who don’t live with them, but the parents are seeing incremental learning, they understand that other options don’t work well for their child, and they are comfortable with where they are right now. So many possibilities.
I know when my children were young, extended family were quite confused by our parenting style. I imagine it looked messy and a bit chaotic to them. What was important was how it was working for us. The kids were learning, both about the world and about themselves. They were happy. And I was learning about being a parent. I was definitely tired, but I genuinely enjoyed being with my children.
Now let’s dig into the rules piece a bit.
As I mentioned, unschooling isn’t about a no rules free-for-all and the resulting havoc. Especially with young children, parents have more experience in seeing the clues in their child’s behaviour—from being tired, to overstimulated, to sad, to excited. They can use these clues to help their child move through those moments more smoothly, like relaxing routines to help them get to sleep, moving to a quieter environment when they are overstimulated, supporting them when they are sad, and celebrating with them when they are excited.
Young children often don’t yet have enough experience under their belt to meaningfully answer direct questions like “are you tired?” or “are you hungry?” or “why are you sad?” By noticing those clues and reacting accordingly (moving to quiet activities to encourage sleep, offering up food, consoling rather than try to solve) parents are showing their children ways to move through those moments. Eventually the children will begin to make those connections for themselves. Gaining the self-awareness to take cues from themselves can be more helpful in the long term than, say, looking at a clock to guide eating and sleeping times.
As for the rules about knife and match use, it’s not that any unschooling families I know leave knives and matches laying out for inexperienced children to freely play with unsupervised. Keeping their children’s environment safe is common sense. But if a child asks, instead of answering with “you’re too young,” they would likely help them accomplish whatever was on their mind (as soon as feasible, as you mention, though learning is given a high priority in the grand scheme of things). The child still asks—a rule isn’t needed for that to happen. Or maybe the parents offer, if the situation arises: “Would you like to try cutting your sandwich?” Gaining experience. Learning.
I think our actions as parents may be quite similar, but a rule generally puts the onus on the child to remember and follow it, rather than keeping the responsibility with the parent to be actively involved until the child can safely take on the activity themselves. It’s a tweak in perspective, but one that I’ve found helps keeps the focus on the child’s learning and a “working together” approach.
As you mentioned, there are definitely children who don’t take much issue with rules and boundaries, especially when they are younger. The bigger question comes if/when they no longer agree to the rule, which is more prevalent as they get older and their world expands beyond their family. At this point it’s helpful to already be comfortable observing actions, sharing thoughts, and finding a path forward that works for everyone. If instead the choice is made to enforce the rules more strictly, that’s when a disconnect between a parent and child can start to grow, possibly damaging the relationship over time, and in some cases, being the root of rebellion in later years.
In the end, it’s about exploring and choosing a parenting and lifestyle that fits well with our family, both with our principles and goals, and with our personalities. Parents are learning too. 🙂
LIVING JOYFULLY … with unschooling
Last week was my eldest’s birthday! It was a great occasion to try out a new cheesecake recipe. It’s his favourite dessert. He’s lactose intolerant, but he does well with goat’s milk, so I modified the recipe, and made a regular one so he could have his to himself. I spent a good chunk of the day before building them, layer by layer: cookie crumb crust, peanut butter fudge layer, cheesecake layer, chocolate ganache topping. It was delicious! And the printed recipe is now full of notes for tweaks for each of them, so they are even better next time.
Michael was working hard at the dojo all week learning Sensei’s half of the dueling double nunchuks routine for demos this past weekend (Sensei injured his should skiing a few weeks). It was so fun to see him perform it!
Yet also woven through the week were a number of things I found quite challenging and stressful. It seemed that as I worked to resolve and recover from one thing, something else popped up. By Thursday evening I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. I reminded myself that this wouldn’t go on forever, to just keep doing the things that needed doing, and to remember to do the things that help me lower my stress and frustration: like watching some TV with hubby (I can’t read when I’m worked up); going to bed earlier (I almost always think more clearly after a good sleep); singing loudly (which I do in the car as needed—Michael sang along with me on the way home from the dojo Thursday night!); and going for a walk (that didn’t happen this time because it was too cold out to enjoy). And I accepted with grace the fact that I wasn’t going to get a fourth post written this month.
When the kids were younger and I was busier helping them throughout the day, sometimes I’d immerse myself in an activity with them so I could see their joy in action. That often helped because it burst through my hyperfocus on the problem, letting me see the bigger picture of life. Other times I’d invite them to a quieter activity where I could rest and think. I remember some nights really looking forward to going to sleep with them, with no plans to get back up. I’d find things that worked for my current circumstances.
I wanted to share this bit of my week because sometimes living joyfully with unschooling gets interpreted as meaning one should always be happy. That’s not realistic. Life doesn’t always go smoothly. Even still, I can look for the good things.
Interestingly, the last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and she points out an interesting relationship between joy and gratitude that I think speaks to the deeper meaning of living joyfully that I’m talking about. Here’s a quote from an interview about this aspect of her research:
“I did not interview in all that time a person who would describe themselves as joyful, or describe their lives as joyous, who did not actively practice gratitude. And for me it was very counter-intuitive because I kind of went into the research thinking that the relationship between joy and gratitude was, if you’re joyful, then you should be grateful. But it wasn’t that way at all. It was really that practicing gratitude invites joy into our lives.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but I think it lines up pretty well—even amongst the muck of life, there are things to be grateful for. Those are the things I’m especially careful to reach for when I’m stressed. Holding both joy and stress together helps me better move through the hard moments. And unschooling helped me get there. 🙂
Thanks again for inviting me to be a part of your unschooling journey and I wish you and your family a joyful week.